Save time and end distractions with this simple step-by-step guide
When you get a new computer of any type, the default configuration is optimized for the needs of the manufacturer—not for you. You need to take control, but it can take hours of research and fine-tuning if you don’t know where to start.
I’ve been tracking the changes I’ve made to improve productivity on my own Windows 10 machine. If you follow all the hints below, I figure (extremely conservatively) that you will save at least 15 seconds per working hour just on completing tasks. But that’s only the beginning: The real benefits come with a cleaner interface and fewer distractions.
Here’s how to customize Windows 10 for optimal productivity.
Basic Setup Options
Windows taskbar basics
Right click in the taskbar > Taskbar settings and turn the following settings on:
- Lock the taskbar
- Use small taskbar buttons
For taskbar location, select “Bottom.” (Never use lateral or top bar, please!) For combine taskbar buttons, select “When taskbar is full.”
All the rest should be unmarked, including “Show taskbar on all displays.” (For more on that, see DisplayFusion below in the section “Other productivity software”).
You should never use big icons. They take up a big portion of the screen and are totally useless. Also, never use the combine taskbar buttons by default: If you have several files open in the same application, you can switch between them much more quickly if you don’t have to click on the icon and then look through the list for the one you want.
As an example, this is a good taskbar: All active applications and the name of all the open files are shown so you can quickly find the one you want to open. The taskbar is small and covers less than 3% of the screen.
By comparison, here is a bad taskbar: The icons are enormous, and they don’t show the name of the open files. There is a lot of gray space totally wasted. The taskbar covers less than 10% of the screen (or even more, depending on the screen resolution).
If you use the taskbar pictured above, and you have several files open in the same application (something that you likely do all the time), you need to click first on the application icon, a preview of the files will appear, and then you detect the one you want to open and finally click it.
More Taskbar Refinements
Hide Cortana: Right click on taskbar and uncheck “Show Cortana button.” You don’t need it to use Cortana. (This does not disable Cortana. If you have privacy concerns about Cortana, however, you can also disable it.)
Hide the search icon: Right click on taskbar and select “Hidden” under Search.
The Task View button can stay if you want a reminder to use this nice Windows 10 functionality, but never access it through the icon. Always use the shortcut, Windows key + Tab.
Uncheck all toolbars: Right click on the taskbar and uncheck everything under “Toolbars.”
Hide People: Uncheck “Show people on the taskbar.”
Hide all useless icons in the taskbar:
- The only icons that should appear here are: Battery, Sound, Wireless, and Google Drive (for fast check of synchronization).
- The rest of the icons can be hidden, but they’re still accessible by clicking on the up-arrow.
If you use more than one language, activate them in the taskbar: Right click on the language in the taskbar (the three letters of your default language) and add it in “Preferred languages.” In order to switch quickly between your selected languages, use the shortcut Alt + Shift.
Clean your taskbar of useless icons: You very likely only need Chrome, Windows Explorer (or another preferred file system app), and perhaps one or two more applications that you use every day. Remember that you can quickly open these applications by pressing the Windows key + the number of the location of the app in the taskbar.
Other Windows 10 Configurations
Change the background to dark gray: Right click on desktop > Personalize. Select Solid color in Background; the color “gray dark” is a good one. No photos or vivid colors—gray is the perfect balance between brightness and density.
Remove all Desktop icons except Recycle bin. From now on, you don’t want to store files on the Desktop, ever. Desktop tends to be full of folders, files, apps, etc., and it gets messy pretty quickly. My recommendation is to always directly use Windows Explorer’s quick access features (see below: “Windows Explorer”).
Activate dark theme: Right click on Desktop > Personalize > Colors > Choose your color: Dark. This is very personal, but if you want to have a focused and distraction-free environment, dark theme is recommended.
Update scale and layout: This is very personal, but for laptops usually you should at least use 150% of scaling. Right click on desktop > Display settings > Scale and layout.
You can access almost all Control Panel functions using the Windows key and simply typing what you are looking for. Sometimes that doesn’t completely work so I will include the manual steps for these next items.
Notifications & Notifications Center
- Disable all notifications: Go to Settings > System > Notifications & actions > Uncheck everything.
- The Notifications center can be customized, but as you will rarely use it, you can keep it as is. Enable only and “Alarms only” in Focus Assist so you are not disturbed by useless notifications.
- For quick access to Notifications center, remember the shortcut: Windows + A.
Activate Windows Hello: This is the Windows biometric security feature. If you didn’t do set it up already, go to Settings > Home > Sign-in options and configure Windows Hello. This only works for newer laptops, and it may not work for your corporate computer, but in all other cases it’s a great feature that saves you some precious seconds every time you log in.
Activate clipboard history: Start > Settings > System > Clipboard and turn on Clipboard history. Use Windows + V to access the history of copied items. Very useful!
Turn on encryption: Settings > Update & Security > Device encryption. It will encrypt your hard drive in case the computer is lost, your data is safe. I consider this totally mandatory if you are using a laptop—although is not available for all computers. If you are using a corporate PC, you will probably have another pre-installed encryption software with similar functionalities.
Increase mouse sensitivity. This should be based on your personal preference, but I find it most efficient at about level 6 or more. Go to Settings > Home > Mouse > Additional mouse options > Pointer options > Motion.
If you are using a laptop, configure the trackpad. Settings > Devices > Touchpad:
- Cursor speed: usually six or more.
- Tap with a single finger to single-click (and all the following) should be checked.
- Activate three- and four-finger gestures. For three fingers, switch apps and show desktop (swipe left-right to change apps, swipe down to show desktop). For four fingers, switch desktops and show desktop (very useful for laptops).
Also for laptops, disable the fn key: Simply press the fn key. This allows you to use Function keys without the need to press fn before. To increase/decrease brightness or sound, you will need to press fn key, but you will be able to use Windows Function keys, a total must for productivity!
After using numerous file explorers, I’ve found the default Windows Explorer is probably the best for most people.
Configure your quick access bar (left pane of the file explorer) and include your top 10 to 15 used folders. Remove “Desktop” from the quick access bar (I recommend that you never save anything in the desktop) and all the other default folders. The first one listed should be the Downloads folder.
Remember these three shortcuts for Windows Explorer:
- Control + Shift + N to create a new empty folder.
- F2 to rename files/folders.
- Alt > V > HF (first H and then F, if this is not clear, go to the section “Quick note on Windows 10 Ribbon bar”) to hide/unhide file extensions.
Set Downloads as default opening folder: By default, every time you open Windows Explorer, it drives you to Quick Access a folder I find useless. It is desirable to load Downloads folder, as lots of time you will want to open or move a file you just downloaded. To do so, you need to manually edit Windows registry. Press Windows key and write registry and go to the following route:
Set “Value data” to 3 so Downloads folder is open by default. Values for default folders are:
- Quick access
- This PC
- Downloads (desired value)
Set details view as default: Windows Explorer offers several view options: extra large, large and medium icons, list view, details, etc.
Details view allows you to quickly access to all relevant files/folder details: Name, date, type and size. You can add additional fields like author, creation date, etc. (right click on the columns title), but the mentioned 4 fields should be enough. In addition, you can quickly sort files by any of the mentioned files with a click on the column title. To modify the view, simply open Windows Explorer > View > Details (also, right click anywhere in Windows Explorer > View > Details). I haven’t find any other use case for all the other views except big icons in case you are using a Windows Tablet.
Quick note on Windows 10 Ribbon bar
Windows 10, including Windows Explorer and Office 365, offer the possibility to use the ribbon bar for thousand of shortcuts. For Windows Explorer, I recommend to hide the ribbon bar as it will cover a big portion of the screen and will be rarely used (it’s better to use the shortcut / KeyTip), but Office 365 should show it every time. You can hide/show the ribbon bar with Ctrl + F1 or with the small down arrow in the top-right corner of the active window.
Ribbon bar can be messy and confusing sometimes as it shows lot of rarely used options, but if you get used to it and learn some basic shortcuts, it’s one of the most powerful Windows 10 features.
You can activate Ribbon bar shortcuts or KeyTips (as Microsoft calls it) with the Alt key. You will see that a letter appears in every option in the menu bar, simply press the one you want to use. With time and practice you will learn some shortcuts that you will use everyday, especially if you work with Office 365 (more on that in the following section).
There are thousands of shortcuts and tricks for optimizing Excel, PowerPoint, and Word. Here are the essentials I use:
Customize the Quick Access Toolbar (the icons that you see in the top bar, before the name of the file) and include these:
- Save file (even if you always use the shortcut, Control + S).
- Undo and Redo (shortcuts are Control + Z and Control + Y).
- Copy format: This feature used to have a corresponding shortcut, but not anymore. You can use the keystroke Alt > E > S > T after copying the format you want to apply.
- Font color.
- Fill color.
To include the mentioned icons in the Quick Access Toolbar, simply right click on the button and select “Add to Quick Access Toolbar”.
Disable the search box that appears in the top margin after the file name: File > Options > General > Check “Collapse the Microsoft Search box by default.” You will never use Office search when you have access to Google. You might also disable F1 for help, but it is not as easy as it should be, so we can leave it there.
Key shortcuts (mainly for Excel)
- Control + F1: Hide/unhide the complete ribbon bar (very useful for small/laptop screens where you want to have a complete view of the document). Please remember that you should disable Fn key (see above) in your keyboard so you can directly access Windows function keys without the need to press fn!
- Control + Shift + 1 thru 5: Convert cell format to number, currency, percentage, etc.
- F11: Create a quick chart (useful for quick data verification and high-level visual analysis).
- Alt > N > V: Create a quick pivot table.
- Alt + Shift + 0: Sum all cells above.
- Control + +: Add new cells (Control + — to remove selected cells).
Sometimes Microsoft seems to randomly change the shortcuts and you need to re-learn them. Even so, it is totally worth it.
Install the following extensions:
- Adblock: No more intrusive ads. If a page detects you are using Adblock, simply open a new incognito tab and load the page. Shortcut is: Go to address bar (Ctrl + L), copy URL (Ctrl + C), open new incognito tab (Ctrl + Shift + N), paste URL (Ctrl + V) and load (Enter). This way you can take a quick look at the page without disabling Adblock.
- Evernote / Notion / OneNote web clipper, or your preferred note-taking application.
- Instapaper or Pocket to save articles for reading later.
- LastPass or your preferred password manager
- SetupVPN or your preferred VPN.
- Video Speed Controller: I find this a total must it allows you to increase/decrease video playback speed with the D and S keys. Usually 1.5x is an good speed for the majority of videos.
Enable shortcuts for your most used extensions: Menu button > More tools and in the upper left corner select Extension shortcuts. In my case, I set Ctrl + Q and Ctrl + E for quick access to WordReference and LastPass.
Bookmarks management: Save all your favorites, but maximize your bookmarks bar space by hiding the text for some of them. You can right click > edit on any link in the bookmarks bar and delete the name, leaving only the icon. A good bookmarks bar is a combination of favicons without name and favicons + text.
Key shortcuts to remember:
- Ctrl + T: Open new tab
- Ctrl + W: Close current tab
- Ctrl + Shift + N: Open new incognito tab
- Ctrl + Shift + T: Open last closed tab
- Ctrl + 1–9 and Ctrl + right/left arrow: Move between tabs
- Ctrl + Shift + B: Show/hide bookmarks bar